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'Virtual town hall' on virus draws 5,300

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People across the Berkshires, 5,300 strong, came together Tuesday seeking answers in the age of the new coronavirus. Without ever meeting.

U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, took called-in questions during a "virtual town hall," joined by Dr. James Lederer of Berkshire Health Systems. The hour revealed what's on the minds of the dozen people chosen to ask questions amid a public health crisis.

They're fretting over just about everything.

For Jim in Otis, it is where to get a doctor. Sue in Pittsfield asked about tuition debt relief. John in Williamstown hit Lederer with a four-part question that got the doctor talking about DNA tests, antibodies, immune responses, virus particles and epidemiology.

Dave, who drives meals to shut-ins, asked Lederer for tips on safe food-handling practices. Gail in Sheffield wanted to know whether it makes sense to wear a mask to the grocery store. And Ben from Stockbridge quizzed Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, on whether the U.S. Postal Service can survive.

Callers with personal issues, like the Springfield woman whose husband lives at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, where residents have died of COVID-19, were asked to stay on the line and provide information to Neal's staff.

On issues common to all — whether health care institutions have what they need and how local businesses will survive — Neal and Lederer offered measured reassurance.

Lederer, chief medical and chief quality officer for BHS, said that despite collaborative efforts with government and other institutions, Berkshire Medical Center has a finite supply of essential equipment.

"We're on our own, in large part," he said, when asked whether the hospital has access to enough ventilators to save patients in severe respiratory distress.

A caller named Meg noted that people in rural areas in the Berkshires, despite a decadelong effort to close the digital divide, still lack broadband internet and now are trying to educate their children at home. Neal offered sympathy. "I think it's stunning that that doesn't exist."

John Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, asked Neal how long it will take for financial relief from the CARES Act, signed into law Friday, to reach the Berkshires.

"Before the federal aid really starts to flow, we might lose these businesses," Bissell said.

Neal told Bissell that the new law provides for small business loans up to $10 million that are designed to keep people on payrolls.

"There's an excellent chance for forgiveness on that loan going forward," Neal said for companies that avoid layoffs. As he did in a media call Saturday, the lawmaker predicted that Congress would approve a fourth package, including provisions designed not just to provide relief, but economic stimulus.

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Ben Quick, executive director of the nonprofit Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club, said his group, like others, needs cash to remain afloat. He said he consulted an official with Berkshire Bank, who told him the institution has no idea when money will be available.

"Our payroll is going to determine whether we can weather this storm," Quick said.

Another nonprofit leader, Kenneth W. Singer, president and CEO of Berkshire County Arc, said his human service agency has dealt with contagion affecting its staff and clients but isn't eligible for the relief passed last week. The agency operates more than 40 group homes and day programs and employs over 800 people. Singer told Neal relief is capped at companies with 500 workers.

Neal promised to address that in future legislation.

Daniel Bosley, a former state representative from North Adams, echoed Bissell's concerns about the resilience of the local economy.

"Bringing the economy back is going to be a long-term struggle, I think," Bosley said. Given the burden of health expenses landing on households, he expressed concern not only about lost paychecks, but new bills coming due.

"I think the problem of surprise medical billing is going to be even worse," Bosley said.

Staying safe

On practical questions related to avoiding exposure to the virus, Lederer offered the following advice:

Masks and shopping: Lederer says he doesn't typically wear a mask, using social distancing to remain 6 to 8 feet from other shoppers. But, he said he sees their value in smaller, crowded markets. "I don't linger in a crowded aisle."

Food deliveries: When helping distribute food door to door, Lederer suggests taking the porch principle. Leave food there with a hearty wave to the resident, from afar. Any sealed food items should be safe to handle, he said.

Getting care: For the man from Otis without a local doctor, Lederer suggested calling the operation that BMC is staffing from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The center can be reached at 855-262-5465.

Letters in the mail: To Ben in Stockbridge, worried about whether the post office can hang on, Neal said the service might get help in the next measure to come through Congress.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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